An Easy Thanksgiving

November 15, 2011

by Ann Waterman

Last year, I finally hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner. Up until then, I had always spent it at other people’s homes and enjoyed the fruits of their labor; but after moving and finally having the space to host, my husband and I decided to step up to the plate and take on Turkey Day ourselves. We hosted 15 people, and it went off without a hitch — I was even able to run my own personal 5K turkey trot in the morning before guests arrived.

I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the intense rush that occurs just before dinner is served, when dishes are all coming together and the kitchen is bustling, but you shouldn’t have to spend the entire day slaving in the kitchen away from your guests. With careful planning, it can be a relaxing, fun day even for the host. Here are my tips for making Thanksgiving easy:

Make Ahead

There are lots of recipes that can be made — or partially made — days or even weeks in advance without sacrificing taste. This can be a real time saver and make Thanksgiving Day a breeze.

Before the big day last year, a friend was kind enough to loan me Cook’s Illustrated’s  The Best Make-Ahead Recipeswhich turned out to be a goldmine — some recipes could be made months in advance and frozen, others a few days beforehand and kept in the fridge. My guests would have been hard-pressed to tell which dishes were made that morning or earlier in the week.

Also, check out Real Simple’s Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Day Menu. As a Canadian married to an American, I’m allowed to indulge in two Thanksgiving Day dinners — ours being celebrated the same weekend as Columbus Day. My mother-in-law was kind enough to remember while we were visiting her that weekend and suggested we try it. We actually made the entire Real Simple menu, and it turned out really well.

Delegate

Don’t be a hero. Accept help if it’s offered or assign tasks. Maybe Aunt Lydia can bring pies and your sister can bring something to nosh on before dinner is served. I’m blessed to have a very helpful husband who’s a real star when it comes to pitching in, particularly when we have guests. Last year he handled the turkey from start to finish — cleaning it and putting it in the oven and then carving and serving it. It allowed me to focus on sides and other aspects of entertaining.

Get Organized

Sit down with a pen and paper and write down all the tasks you need to do. Then, grab your calendar and assign one or two tasks to the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Perhaps you can pull out and iron linens one night, polish silver another, and set the table the night before. It won’t seem like so much work if you can break down the tasks over several days.

Another thing I like to do is list each item we’re serving on our our kitchen whiteboard. As dishes are completed, I cross it off the list. This way, I don’t forget any dishes, especially where there are so many. If the dish needs to be put in the oven for a set amount of time, I’ll calculate what time it needs to go in in order to be ready by dinnertime and write that time on the board. It makes it much easier to keep track of what dish needs to go in the oven when.

One last tip: Clean out your fridge a few days before Thanksgiving. Space will be at a premium, and it would be a shame for room to be occupied by nearly empty containers or food that’s past its prime.

Simplify

Do you really need to have 10 different side dishes? Maybe you don’t even like some of them, but serve them just because it’s tradition. Take a good hard look at your menu and ask yourself if you can’t take off one or two items. If you love them all, consider making a few in alternate years.

Cheat

Making a dinner from scratch for a large group is hard work, and no one’s going to fault you for taking a shortcut here or there. Maybe buy rolls from a favorite bakery, or use ready-made pie crusts instead of making your own — go ahead, I promise I won’t tell!

What are your tips for making Thanksgiving day easier?

Image: Food Network

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1 Cecilia Madden November 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Love these tips! My mother and grandmother are the masters of Thanksgiving. They have hosted so many years now, the preparation is a breeze- nobody needs instructions, they all know what they’re “supposed” to do. It is amazing to watch.
Hosting myself is a different story…tips like this help!

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Ann Waterman 2 Ann November 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Cecilia, hoping I’ll be a well-oiled turkey dinner making machine in a couple years just like your mom and grandmother! Good luck with yours this year!

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3 LL November 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I think planning an oven schedule is one of my most important parts of the day for Thanksgiving or Christmas. When I finalize my menu, I count backwards from my suggested dinner time, taking into account varying oven temperature requirements too. Both times I’ve done this, I’ve only been 10-15 mins “late” with dinner (beating my mother’s standard 1 hour lateness by a mile). :)

Making ahead is huge too. Whatever you can do early, do it! Since we’re always traveling home to FL for the holidays, this can be more difficult for me now that I cook the meals, but I try to do at least 1 thing the night before.

Delegating can be tough . . . unless you have other cooks you trust! :)

Ann, I really think that you’ve covered any suggestions I would have. One more might be not to take on a ton of brand new dishes. If it’s your first time, they may all be new to you of course. But if you’ve done it before, don’t feel the need to suddenly change everything and stress yourself out with unfamiliar dishes on a day you’re cooking at least 6 or 7 things anyway.

My final random thought is that I can’t believe my mother did all the holiday cooking practically all alone for so many years growing up. She rarely asked me for much help, and my grandmother only helped a little. So perhaps a belated thank you to her is in order when we go home next week!

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Ann Waterman 4 Ann November 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm

LL, I definitely agree with you about not taking on too many new dishes, if any! The day is stressful enough! And that’s sweet of you to recognize your Mom — what you said is so true.

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Margaret Cabaniss 5 Margaret Cabaniss November 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm

LL, I was just going to say the same thing about my mom. Last year was my first Thanksgiving hosting, and I spent the entire day (the entire three days leading up to it, really), saying to myself, “I can’t believe she did all this by herself. I can’t believe she did all this by herself…”

One thing I do remember her delegating, though, was the table setting — she left that to us kids. I always loved pulling out the fine china, silver, and linen; it made me feel important to be left the very special task of decorating the table. And I’m sure my mom was happy to have the kids out from underfoot in her kitchen!

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Ann Waterman 6 Ann November 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I finally received my grandmother’s fine china set and will be breaking it out (let’s hope that’s only in a figurative sense) for this Thanksgiving. I might give the five-year old night off from setting the table though…

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7 LL November 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Margaret,

Completely forgot the table setting! That was something she usually entrusted to me, and something I enjoyed with our fine china and silver.

I cooked Thanksgiving & Christmas at home last year for the first time, and only for 4 people. But our serving sizes were for at least double that number so we could enjoy a week of leftovers. (Sometimes that’s the best part!) This year, I did an early Thanksgiving dinner for some friends (12 adults, 3 kids and 4 babies who didn’t eat). I cut down on the number of side dishes, but it was a lot of people and still fun. And I had two trusty helpers! Oh, and the hubby to carve. ;)

I’ll probably be doing Thanksgiving and Christmas again this year, so by 12/26, I may feel like an old pro.

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8 Kari November 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for the mention of the Cooks Illustrated book! I just stopped and reserved it at the library online (: I love their recipes and am looking for freezable meals to make in preparation for my baby arriving in January.

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Ann Waterman 9 Ann November 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Let me know how you like it! The friend who loaned it to me also made me a dish from it to bring over after I had my baby last year. It was very well received.

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10 Kathleen November 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Remembering that the turkey needs time to rest and takes time to carve is big in oven scheduling. I forgot to figure that in for years.

I use Safeway’s two hour turkey recipe every year now. It really is only about two hours, even for my 23 pounders.

My favorite Thanksgiving simplifying device is… A second oven. :-)

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11 LL November 16, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I dream about (and drool over) the thought of a 2nd oven! When we win the lottery and that kitchen reno can take place maybe . . . .

Cook’s Illustrated’s turkey recipe for me is about 2 hours as well, though I don’t follow the brining parts. And that’s for an 18 pounder. At our normal 12-13 lbs, it’s more like an hour 45. (My mother was shocked!) I really like the recipe, and it makes a lot of sense b/c it starts by cooking the turkey breast side down for 45 mins, since that always cooks faster. The other thing I absolutely need now is my instant read Thermopen thermometer. Don’t think I could do the turkey without it!

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12 Agnes November 17, 2011 at 12:35 am

Although I am staying in town this year I think these are really important tips for every year and many gatherings. They allows one to focus on family and what is really important and enjoyable about a gathering with loved ones where food is central. I have fallen victim many times to the problem of too many side dishes. Never again!

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13 Mel December 2, 2011 at 11:08 pm

We cook two small turkeys about 10-12lbs each for about 20 people each year. One is roasted on the outside grill and one in a separate roasting oven. This keeps the oven available for all the side dishes and warming items just before moving them to the table. We have been hosting Thanksgiving for nearly 30 years and love every minute of it! My husband and I work very well together and we utilize many of your suggestions. Many family members know that we now have it down to a science!
Mel

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Ann Waterman 14 Ann December 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm

What a great idea, Mel! I like that it gives you a little different flavor, too. My husband and I work together like a well-oiled machine, too — one of the many reasons I married him!

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15 anshk December 6, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Turkey breast a la Chew/under skin rubbed a combo of lemon rind, butter softened and snipped sage, used a surgical glove and set Breast upon 2 halves of lemon and sprigs of sage. Easy cornbread stuffing (3 large bakery muffins) and root veges (did 7) cleaned, cut and stored in plastic bag and olive oiled by adding oil to the bag @ 1/4 cup and shook up, put in a small roasting pan and roasted along with turkey time, uncovered 1/2 hr before. Done! Stuffing done day before and reheated. Had soup simmering a la Costco. Friend brought appetizer, also cheese and crackers. Pumpkin eggnog from local farm. Pie done day before. Voila!

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